A Writer Moves To 'Bettyville' To Care For His Elderly Mom
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Many Americans are living longer, and many of their children voluntarily or involuntarily become caregivers for extended periods of time. In 2011, my guest, George Hodgman, moved from Manhattan back to his small hometown of Paris, Missouri, to take care of his then 91-year-old mother. He's still living with her in Missouri, helping her through cancer and some dementia. It's been very fulfilling in many ways, alienating in others. Some issues that he and his mother could never candidly discuss, they still can't, like the fact that he is gay. Hodgman has worked as an editor at Vanity Fair and at several publishing houses. He's just written his first book. It's a memoir about taking care of his mother, Betty. It's called "Bettyville." Moving in with his mother started as just a visit for her 91st birthday. But when he observed the condition she was in, he decided to stay.
GEORGE HODGMAN: I went home for her birthday, and I found out that she had lost her driver's license. She was hiding the fact that she had lost her driver's license as she, you know, hides everything involved in her decline or her problems. And I have always associated my mother with mobility. If you live in a place like we live in, you drive everywhere, and you have to drive. And my mother, she was always on the road. And she sort of got a don't-fence-me-in mentality. And losing that license I knew was just so crucial, you know. It was such a bad moment for her.
GROSS: When you say she lost her license, did she physically lose it or was it taken away from her?
HODGMAN: It was taken away from her. We had had an agreement. And she was not supposed to drive except to the grocery store, to church, to bridge club. And she accepted an invitation from a bridge club in a nearby town, and she had a little fender bender. She backed into the ditch. And the policeman reported her to the driver's license bureau.
GROSS: So you hadn't - when you first visited her, you hadn't planned to stay.
GROSS: But you did. So what was it like leaving behind your home in New York without having planned to do that? I mean, there must have been things that were hanging up in the air. Because I think, you know, for so many people who spend so much time in another location other than their home taking care of parents, you have to keep up with your own life, too. And you left whatever life you have in New York just kind of dangling.
HODGMAN: Well, I had lost my job. I had lost my regular job. And I was doing freelance work. So I knew that I could do that there, which made many things easier. But I of course - it was just - it was people, it was leaving the people and leaving the relationships that really sustained me. And I'm in recovery. And leaving that group of people who had been so vital to me was really hard. And - but I was - when I - you know, the first year that I was there, it was sort of a matter of, well, I'm only here for another month or another couple of days. We had actually gotten my mom onto a waiting list for a really, really nice assisted living place. And, you know, I was going to stay there until she got into assisted living, but she was not accepted unfortunately.
GROSS: Because of dementia?
HODGMAN: Yes, you - she wasn't self-sustaining enough. They couldn't count on her to, you know, get dressed in the morning. She just needed too much help. And so it was - that was a really awkward moment because she didn't want to go but it seemed more of a blow even, you know, to be declined.
GROSS: Right, that she kind of flunked out of assisted living, or...
HODGMAN: I know, you flunk out of assisted living, it's...
GROSS: ...didn't pass the exam to get in, yeah.
HODGMAN: That was very awkward. That was really hard. And - but the thing that happened was that I didn't dislike being there. Doing freelance, you're alone all day. And I had always depended on my work so much to give me social life and family and connection - a sense of connection. And I hated being in a New York City apartment building by myself during the day. There's a particularly empty sound of the elevators going up and down. Or, you know, occasionally you get an opera singer who you'll hear, you know, from another floor, or, you know, on a really big day, maybe a couple of delivery boys. But it's just - it was lonesome. I hated it. And I - it had been a really long time since I had been a part of a normal functioning household with three meals a day that you don't order from someone, and I liked it.
GROSS: What are some of the things you have to do to take care of your mother? And I'm thinking of the more difficult things that - you know, again, a lot of people go through this who are suddenly - you're bathing her parent or maybe even diapering them. And you're exposed to a part of their personal hygiene and of their bodies that you were not privy to before. And it could be a very awkward turning point in a relationship between a parent and a child.
HODGMAN: Well, I try really, really hard to respect those boundaries. We have a woman named Carol (ph) who works with us and comes in and helps me a lot. And I - you know, I try really, really hard to give my mother her space and her independence and not to be intrusive. But I always say that - I mean, a huge part of my job seems to be convincing my mother to do things - convincing her to wear new shoes or wear boots in the winter or change her clothes or eat. I mean, it's really depressing for me. A lot of people, as they progress in their dementia, their appetite lessens. And that just breaks my heart because my mother has enjoyed food so much in the last few years. So I think that a good part of my role is to just do little things that make her as happy as possible all along the way - every day. We - you know, about once a week, we watch "Dirty Dancing."
GROSS: (Laughter) Every week?
HODGMAN: Yeah, well, it's a really good movie. And she's got a little crush on Patrick Swayze. And I try to encourage her emotional feelings, and - but it's like mothers do with a child, in a way. You try and come up with treats. And my mother had never read books. And she suddenly - I was home, and I was reading, and I started giving her books to read. We started with Nicholas Sparks. I don't think there is anybody in this world who is more thankful for Nicholas Sparks than I am.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is George Hodgman. And he's an editor, a book editor. But he's written his own book, his first. It's a memoir about moving from Manhattan back to his hometown in Paris, Mo. - a very small town - to take care of his mother who is now in her 90s.
Your parents were never comfortable with you being gay. And you could never really talk about it to them. They knew at some point. But do you feel now that, like, she accepts that, that she gets it?
HODGMAN: I think my mother has - you know, my mother is from such a different world. She doesn't take in who's gay. She doesn't think about gay. She hasn't ever been around gay people. And when I told her that I was gay, she sort of acted like it was, you know, I had a cold and I might get over it. Or she just - she doesn't understand it. And sexuality is not something that we have ever, you know, spent much time discussing. And I just - we've never been good at going there. We've never been going - good at going private.
GROSS: So can you be fully yourself in the home? Can you invite a man over? Are you out in town now?
HODGMAN: Well, there are no men.
HODGMAN: I mean, there are no - do you know any in Missouri?
HODGMAN: You know, are you listening?
HODGMAN: I - you know, it's a completely different social atmosphere than I'm used to. And I could, you know, I could bring someone over. I couldn't have someone - you know, I can't imagine that I would have someone stay overnight. I could introduce my mother to someone who is a friend. I don't know that she would perceive that it was, you know, a romantic situation or a dating situation. But she - you know, she would be open to meeting a friend. It - you know, that has not been an issue so far. But I don't feel deprived. I really don't. I feel part of a family, which is nice.
GROSS: Do you also feel like the pressure is off to meet somebody because you kind of can't right now, so you don't have to think about it?
HODGMAN: Well, yes, I do. And, you know, I wanted to write a book on my life. And I felt great pressure to do it. And when I came to Missouri, I had totally given up writing a book. And the book happened. So maybe the same thing will be true of finding a partner.
GROSS: So do you have friends from childhood who are still in Paris, Mo.?
HODGMAN: Yeah, I do. I have linked up with several.
GROSS: How about the bullies who used to bully you when you were a kid? Are they there now and do you have a relationship with them?
HODGMAN: Well, there was one person who gave me a huge amount of trouble. And I encounter his wife on Facebook. And she's very reactionary. She's really right-wing and is very, very vocal about her feelings. And I just - you know, I read her post and I think, oh, my god. It would be you. You know, you would be married to him.
GROSS: By guest is George Hodgman. He is a book editor and now an author. His new memoir is called "Bettyville," and it's about how just a few years ago he returned to his hometown, a small town in Missouri - Paris, Mo. - to take care of his mother who is now in her 90s. Let's take a short break, then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is George Hodgman. He's written a new memoir about how in 2011, he moved from Manhattan back to his hometown in Paris, Mo., a very small town, to take care of his mother - and this was on her 91st birthday - and he's been basically living there ever since. And right now, she has lymphoma and also some dementia.
The town of Paris, Mo., where your mother lives and where you're living with her - you describe it as having a population of 1,246-and-falling (laughter). That's a small - that's a real small town. Would you describe it a little bit for us?
HODGMAN: Well, when I grew up in Paris, Mo., it was a town where there were - it was a town run by merchants. My parents were merchants. My mother's family owned lumber yards, and my father drew houses and built houses, worked out of the lumber yards. There were dress stores, and there was a little department store. And the merchant class was so important to the town, and that merchant class has disappeared now. And so you walk down the street or I walk down the street, and I - there's so much that I miss. There are people that I miss and a sense of a thriving little town. And Paris is still thriving. It still has a real sense of community. There - that has not been lost. And there's neighborliness. And all - you know, the small-town virtues that one thinks about when one considers rural life. But there is - you know, you are really aware of economic change there. And, you know, millions of people have made the point that Wal-Mart has destroyed small-town America, but it has.
GROSS: Is there a big Wal-Mart in Paris, Mo.?
HODGMAN: No, there's one about 20 miles away. There - well, there are two in - one in about - one in 25 miles away and one, 20.
GROSS: Do you have to drive for 20 minutes to buy anything?
HODGMAN: Well, you can go to the Dollar Store. And I've gotten so - I kind of like the Dollar Store. I go to - you know, nothing wrong with a $12 sweater. I've certainly given up a lot of my New York affectations about fashion, which is cool, which is all right. But you can go to the Dollar Store. And the grocery store is fine. The grocery store is really good. And, you know, there are a lot of places that sell things like antiques and things that people have made. And there's also now Family Pawn, so if you have any earrings you want to get rid of, I'll come to Philadelphia and collect them.
GROSS: (Laughter). You quote someone as saying that three things have changed small towns - Wal-Mart, which you have described, the end of family farms and meth. And, in fact, your grandmother's house ended up becoming a meth house, and there was a homicide in that house. Do you find that meth has changed the area that you're from, where you're living now?
HODGMAN: I see a little bit of evidence of that. I see less than I would expect in Paris. Missouri is the number-one state for meth. And I think that, you know, in some of the nearby towns, there's much more evidence of loss from drugs - abandoned houses, places where you see the curtains always seem to be shut. But it was in my grandma's old summer kitchen - we had a summer kitchen, and she used to sit outside on the steps when she had babies. And in the summer nights - Missouri's really hot in the summer, and I used to clean up that summer kitchen. And the notion that people were making meth in there was very, very sad to me.
GROSS: Are you out in the community? Do the people who live there, particularly the ones who knew you back when you were a child, do they know you're gay?
HODGMAN: I guess I am out now...
HODGMAN: ...Because they're all eager to - just at this very moment, they're reading this book and probably finding out more than they ever wanted to know. People know I'm gay. It's not discussed. It's not, you know, how's your lover or, you know, do you like that new Barbra Streisand record, or whatever. It's part of what they sense about me, but it isn't really talked about. I don't know, really, what we'd say about it. It's - at this point, at my age, if you can't be yourself wherever you are, I think it's as much your problem as the people you're around. And I just - on this trip, there's nothing that I conceal. You know, I am myself now there. My humor and my - you know, I don't hold back anymore. And I talk...
GROSS: You said, at your age. What is your age?
GROSS: Do you feel, like, more comfortable being yourself now than you were before you moved down there?
HODGMAN: Well, I think that I have felt increasingly comfortable in sobriety. That's been - I mean, I've been working on that a long time. But I think that I feel, in Paris - I mean, I'm so directed towards her, and so I don't have the energy. I don't have the ability anymore to put up any fences or, you know, spend time being less than myself. There's something about the situation that has just made me very real. When you're up close and personal with somebody with this kind of problems, you're not so worried about whether they, you know - the term I heard recently is that somebody had sugar in his pants. You don't worry about whether they think you have sugar in your pants.
GROSS: (Laughter). My guest is George Hodgman, author of the new memoir "Bettyville." After we take a short break, he'll talk about, how do you respond when your elderly mother says, I bet you wish I was dead. And he'll tell us about recently learning that his parents never spoke to each other about the fact that he's gay. Also, our rock historian Ed Ward will do a retrospective of The Hollies, whose hits in the '60s included "Bus Stop" and "Stop Stop Stop." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with George Hodgman, author of the new book "Bettyville," a memoir about moving in with his 91-year-old mother, Betty, in 2011 which meant moving back to his childhood home in the small town of Paris, Mo., a very different life than the one he'd become accustomed to in Manhattan where he'd worked as an editor at Vanity Fair and at several book publishing houses. And for Hodgman, who's gay, it meant moving from a city with a large gay population to a town with no visible gay culture. Hodgman is still living with his mother, helping her through cancer and some dementia.
Your mother used to play piano in the church that she went to.
GROSS: And you write in Paris - in Paris, Mo., religion is the great comfort. I imagine you take your mother to church. Do you find any comfort in church?
HODGMAN: I find comfort in all forms of community. And I am very, very moved by the church that I found there. I think I inherited a kind of stereotypical notion of holy rollers and Bible beaters and, you know, right-wing fanatics. And it had replaced what I grew up with, which was a very loving church community. And going back there - I mean, I've become so grateful for the fact that my mother has had a community of people who looked after her through the years when I wasn't around. And, you know, it's a lot of the people from our church who have stopped by and who have tried to take care of me who have given me advice. I walk my dog around town. And, you know, it's people who come out of their houses and - from our church. And I do find comfort from that. And I respect it. And it's - religion in our town is so much softer than people might imagine who, you know, hear about Missouri or hear about all of the awful things that are going on in Oklahoma or these nearby states. So I do. I draw some.
And I love the fact that people - I find prayers a beautiful thing, and there is this incredible community of people who pray for my mother. And it's easy to sort of dismiss that. But it's also - you know, when you think as you put your mother and tuck her in at night and you think that all around town people are saying prayers, that's very reassuring. It's lovely to feel, you know? You feel like you're kind of sleeping in gentle arms.
GROSS: You know, I'm getting the sense that you both feel this sense of community living with your mother through the church, through her old friends, through the fact that it's a small town where everybody knows each other. But at the same time, I'm sure that there's also a part of you that is not getting expressed. And I'm not just talking about being gay and having, like, no gay community there, but also as somebody who, like, reads a lot of books, as somebody whose job is editing books and editing articles - somebody who's lived in Manhattan a long time. I mean there's just, like, a whole frame of reference that you probably have few people, if anyone, to share with.
HODGMAN: That's true.
GROSS: And I think that's an issue when you return to, like, your parents' world to take care of them, and it's like it's a nice world. It's the right world for them, but it's not your world.
HODGMAN: Well, one of the things about small-town life is - and it's something that I developed when I was a child - is you have to work harder to find intellectual or creative things to do. And I think that - I mean, I always love those small-town people who are actively nursing their little passions all on their own. And the thing that's happened - and the book is an outgrowth of that - is, you know, partially because I've always worked with reporters who were somewhat sociological and who reported like Anthony Shadid reported about the people of Iraq. And I worked a little bit with Kate Boo who worked about - you know, who then was reporting about the slums of Washington. And so being in Paris, one thing that sustained me is that I was interested in the place. And I was interested in what has become of the place. So that has preoccupied my mind, and I've been almost subconsciously reporting it and listening and hearing.
What I do feel very much is the disparity in my political beliefs because, you know, this is really anti-Obama territory. And it's very conservative. And that conservatism - I mean, that's what is implicitly threatening to me as a gay man.
GROSS: One of the things you found out when you moved down to take care of your mother was that your parents never talked to each other about you being gay. Was that hard for you to fathom?
HODGMAN: That was one of my more painful moments. It was really painful because to discover that they couldn't even acknowledge it to each other was something that I carried for a long time and considered. And I think that what I came to is that - my parents are far from being prudes. And they weren't really rigidly religious, but they were religious. They were brought up in churches. And they really couldn't get beyond the idea that this was a sin against God.
GROSS: You write, (reading) I never wanted to hurt my parents. That has always been the excuse for not making more of an effort to force them into a reality where they could really know me.
HODGMAN: Yes. I copped to being a coward. I didn't push it. Part of my situation was that I was an only child. And so I was not only gay, but I was the only child who carried all the expectation - who all - who had - you know, I had to have the grandchildren. I had to be a success. I mean that's not - they didn't - there wasn't this horrible pressure, but it was a kind of unexpressed feeling. There was a lot that - a lot of my parents' dreams that I felt that I carried and hopes.
And so - I really - you know, I don't want to feel sorry for myself, but I do feel that I maybe carried a little bit more burden because of the only child thing. And I don't - I love my parents so much. And I also - if you're an only child, I always say that people in families where there are children and adults - there are two groups. But an only child is - you know, you're with your parents. There's only one group. There's the three of you. I think from the beginning I saw my parents in a very real way, and I saw certain vulnerabilities. And I didn't ever want to hurt them. And I did feel this burden of wanting to protect them from myself.
GROSS: You know, you mentioned that you were the only child so the pressure was on you to, like, be married and have grandchildren and give them the things that they'd want out of their only son. And you didn't marry. You didn't give them children. But you've had - even though you're kind of officially unemployed now and are doing freelance work, you've had a nice career. You've worked for several publishing houses editing books - some very highly regarded award-winning books. You were an editor at Vanity Fair. But the thing is, these were probably not books that they would have read. They probably did not subscribe to Vanity Fair. So it was kind of off the map for them, maybe.
HODGMAN: You're the only person who ever got that. That's something I never said. And it was really - no, they didn't read the books. And they don't know who the people were. And my mother was very excited about Vanity Fair. And she became more and more excited as she understood it more. But that place - you know, my life - that part of it - they weren't participants in that part of it. Now, that's not to say that there weren't many other parts - you know, many other places were shared. But you put your finger on a place that has been kind of a nagging struggle.
GROSS: My guest is George Hodgman, whose new memoir is called "Bettyville." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. My guest is George Hodgman. His new memoir, "Bettyville," is about moving from Manhattan back to his childhood home in Paris, Mo., to take care of his elderly mother, Betty. He moved there in 2011 when she was 91, and he's still there taking care of her.
You quote your mother as having said to you once, I bet you wish I was dead. How do you respond to that?
HODGMAN: That's one that it'll just stop you in your tracks. I mean, I think that everyone who is around an old person has to deal with that, I wish I was dead, I'm ready to die, I've lived too long.
GROSS: And you never know whether that's a real invitation to have a conversation about facing the end of life or whether that's just said in frustration or said to get a reaction - you know, some pity or - 'cause it's not necessarily an invitation for a reflective moment about the end of life.
HODGMAN: No, but in my mother's - like, one thing my mother doesn't have is self-pity. She really doesn't. She also doesn't have fear of death. She never had fear of death. I mean, the first impulse is always distraction. Well, let's have a Bloody Mary, or, you know, or let's - let me take you to get your hair done - whatever. That's the first impulse. But I try my best to explore it a little bit if she's willing. And it usually leads to a discussion of what we could do to make her a little happier.
GROSS: What are some of the ways you've come up with to try to do that?
HODGMAN: One of the things in this book is I try to express that, in the middle of a country, there's kind of a longing for travel and a longing for other places. Our town is called Paris. And there are all these towns - what's called Versailles, Cairo, Rome. And these Missouri towns are - the names are an expression of the longing of wanting to sort of be in the world. And that's - I think that longing has been a part of my grandmother's and my mother's life. And so I try to talk to my mother about places that I've gone. And I try to talk to her about trips that she's made. I get out old postcards from her trips. And so I try and psychically take her out of the house in one way or another.
GROSS: So your mother now has some dementia. She has cancer. She's in her early 90s. Are you planning on living with her through to the end? Have you thought about that?
HODGMAN: I want to. It just depends on the situation. I wrote a piece recently, and I said, I hope that the cancer and the dementia meet at a civilized place and give her peace. And I think we're nearing the end of our road. And, you know, it's too late now to back out.
GROSS: This is maybe too personal, but do you think about what you will do after she dies?
HODGMAN: All the time. All the time. And - because what I realize is that if you have been around somebody - and, I mean, this role, caretaker, it sounds so stiff. It sounds so boring. It sounds so old lady-ish and I don't like it. And - but if you have been focusing your life on somebody, when they're gone, it's like this huge hole. And I know there's going to be a huge hole. And so I'm trying to prepare for how I'm going to fill it. And I know that a new act of my life is going to begin. And so I have to dream up a new self, a post-Betty self. We all do with our parents, I think. You know, when our parents die, the world changes.
GROSS: So here you are, in your 50s, taking care of your mother, who is in her 90s. As it stands now, you don't have children. It's not too late - maybe you will, maybe you don't want to. Who knows what the future brings. But if you don't have children and, say, maybe you're single when you're older, do you worry, like, well, who's going to take care of you?
HODGMAN: I want a community. I mean, I am single. But I have always needed to be a part of a community. If it was a work community or when I was a part of - when I used to go to Fire Island with my gay friends, we had a house. We had a household, and it felt very familial. I gravitate towards communities. If I - I'm not ever happy in a work situation unless there is a sense of a community of - in the workplace. And so I know that when I consider - and I do - you know, what - how do I want to live my old age? You know, I say I want to be in some sort of community. My fantasy is - in St. Louis, there are all these amazing old houses. And all over Missouri, there are these amazing old houses. I'd love to restore an old house and fill it up with my favorite single people. I would like to spend my old age in some kind of community.
GROSS: George Hodgman, I wish you the best. I wish the best to your mother. Thank you very much for talking with us.
HODGMAN: Thank you.
GROSS: George Hodgman's new memoir about moving to back to his hometown to take care of his elderly mother, Betty, is called "Bettyville." Coming up, rock historian Ed Ward does a Hollies retrospective. This is FRESH AIR.
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